Thursday, September 17, 2009

Careful what you wish for

Miercoles 15 septiembre

It drizzled for about 20 minutes in Ambuqui late this afternoon, and at sunset the skies were filled with dark towering clouds which, with any luck, will mean more rain tonight. Earlier today I had been up to see some friends in El Angel, somewhat higher in altitude than here, and as I was leaving a thunderstorm moved in with hail and heavy rain. It was the first rain I had seen in my month back in Ecuador, and the relief from sun and heat and dust was most welcome.


I hadn`t intended to go to El Angel today, but instead had planned to visit the school gardens in Piqiuicho and Caldera I had started while still with Peace Corps. School has been back in session for about a week now, and I thought it would be a good time to see how things were going and to gauge interest in continuing the gardens, or not. Lo and behold, there is a teacher strike, so of course the schools are closed. I had read that there was a threat of a strike, but it seemed to be only a veiled threat in order to get the government to move a little on some pretty legitimate issues. So now the question is, how long will it last. Maybe just the one day, maybe weeks and weeks.


I`ve mentioned several times the frequent, sometimes constant and always annoying barking of dogs here in Ambuqui. Dogs who are running loose, or dogs condemned to a life tethered to a 6 foot rope or chain. Many`s the time I have remarked to friends how much I would love to have a rifle for just one night . . .

Last night I had been reading, and outside my window was muffled conversation and a scuffling noise I did not recognize. I paid little attention, figuring it was my vecina, Juanita, chatting and working late with some friends. I finished a chapter, turned a page corner to mark my place, and grabbed my binoculars and star chart and headed up to the roof, although it was not a particularly good night for star gazing. Up on the roof, now curious about the voices, I walked to the edge, and on the dusty street below me were 3 people, 2 men and a woman, watching a dog struggling and writhing, obviously poisoned. I had heard some time ago that many pueblos in Ecuador try to control the stray dog population by systematic poisoning, and I thought for a moment that I was seeing that policy in action on this particular night.

I startled them by calling down from the rooftop “que paso?” One of the men looked up, telling me the dog had been poisoned, and that 6 or 8 others had been as well. “All the others have died, quickly, but this one does not die.” The dog was lying on its side, legs pumping in agony, and her breathing was rapid and labored. The ground was covered in vomit and feces. I called down again “how long has she been like this?” and the man, who was her owner, replied “casi una hora”. Almost an hour.

I immediately flashed back to a night years ago, in the US, when, drifting in and out of sleep, I thought I heard my dog, Nico, thrashing about. I slept through it, and in the morning woke to a house covered in blood and vomit and feces. Nico was in the basement, dying . How she had been poisoned I had no idea. It was early, not yet 6 AM, but I called and woke the local veterinarian and rushed her over there. He injected her with some of his magic potions, and although it was close, very close, she pulled through. I took the day off work and stayed home to clean up the mess and to nurse her.

Here, there were no options. No vet, except those in Ibarra, and since it was night it likely would have taken 3 hours and extreme effort to get there and find one. Even if we had transport options, it was likely enough that the dogs` owner would not have the funds to pay for a trip to the vet. The dog was suffering, horribly, and from the looks of things would suffer several hours more before dying. We talked for a moment about what to do, me still up on the roof and him on the ground, clutching the burlap bag that he would use to collect the body once the dog succumbed. He felt very badly for the animal, and was troubled by the extent of its suffering. “Do you have a rifle, or pistol?”, I found myself asking. “No, señor, no tengo.” I knew that one of my neighbors had a rifle, which he used very occasionally to bird hunt. I went downstairs, and we went to borrow the rifle, and hopefully the neighbor, to shoot the dog and put an end to its misery.

The neighbor loaned us the gun, loaded and cocked. We had woken him and he did not want to come outside. He handed the rifle to the other man, and we trudged back down the street. The dog owner, who was holding the rifle, was despondent and said he could not bring himself to shoot his own dog. He asked me to do it.

Without a word I took the rifle, placed the barrel between the eyes of the dog and I pulled the trigger. She quivered a moment, blood pooled around her head, and she died. I handed him the rifle and said “lo siento, amigo.” I`m sorry, friend.
He and the other man stuffed the corpse in the sack, and they headed off to the quebrada, where they would toss the bag over the bank into the dry creek bed. I went back inside my house, drained the rest of a bottle of cheap rum I had been nursing for a few weeks, and thought about my Nico . . .


The dog I shot this night I had recognized as one of the loudest and rowdiest in the neighborhood. I have tossed a rock at her more than once, and I did not feel particularly remorseful about what I had done. But as the hours passed, quietly, with not a bark, not a snarl nor a yelp to be heard, I did not sleep well.

(I took the photo above about a year ago. The sweet looking dog is the subject in my story above, not looking very rowdy at all. The hombre is not the dog`s owner. He and friends had spent the night on the corner behind my house knocking off a half dozen jabas of Pilsener, and at about 6 AM they all nodded off. Moments after I took this, the man`s wife and her small daughter picked him up off the sidewalk and dragged him inside the house. The dog wandered off.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hagame un favor muy especial, si se puede

After two travel entries, it might be time for a rest stop. It`s been challenging to reconstruct our trip thus far, because my note-taking was so abysmal. Normally when traveling I try to make a few notes, but I made almost none on this trip. I don`t know why. Anyway, although I have had to tax my memory to the fullest extent, I feel confident that I`m pretty close to 100% accuracy in the telling.

I do intend to keep writing about our travels in Peru and elsewhere, and soon. As always, I hope anyone who ventures here and stays a moment to read will leave comments, it is always great to get feedback. In the meantime, here`s a little of what`s happening in the here and now.


The title of this entry means “do me a really special favor, if you can”, and as soon as someone utters these words you just know they are going to ask for “a loan” – in any language. The asking this time came from my friend and landlord here in Ambuqui, Geraldo. We had been chatting for a while earlier today, and I actually knew the request was coming, because Geraldo is normally very taciturn, and the only time he ever gets all chatty is when he`s going to ask me for “a favor”. I had stayed at home, still in Ambuqui, most of the day today – to take a break from apartment hunting in Ibarra and to straighten up the place a bit in anticipation of the pending move. Geraldo had been around most of the day too, banging out a piece of sheet metal or something for his tractor. (If Geraldo had a nickel for every time he took a hammer to his old tractor, disc or plow, he would certainly be a wealthy man.)

I have been searching for a new place in Ibarra for a few weeks now, and I am pretty tired of it. I had a fistful of leads, and for various reasons, none have panned out. Problems ranged from ceilings that were only just tall enough to accommodate my height; asking prices nearly doubled because I am a gringo; or pleasant enough places, but completely furnished with some of the gaudiest furniture ever built, stuff like Granma used to keep covered with plastic, to only be subjected to use for special occasions, like funerals. “Ah, OK, gracias, señora, muy amable. Vamos a ver, voy avisar, OK? Ciao ciao!” In other words, thanks, but no thanks, and now I am leaving. So, the house hunting was not going too well, and on top of that I have really been happy to be back here in Ambuqui . I have spent a few wonderful evenings with the Gutierrez folks up the road (if you read the cow story some time ago, that`s them); have finally begun to understand the thick Spanish of my local tienda owner who always has a joke to tell; and despite the barking dogs and occasional blaring of radios, it is generally muy tranquilo aqui, and I like that.
Geraldo needed a loan of 150 dollars. I was surprised by the amount being so high. Normally he or his wife Marianita will ask only if I can pay my rent of 40 dollars a month a week or two in advance, and maybe two or three times in the past 18 months have they asked for small loans of 20 or 40 dollars, which they have quickly paid back. Now, Marianita and Geraldo are hard workers, but they are dirt farmers and when that is your lot in life you are just about always behind. To be a dirt farmer here in Ambuqui is especially treacherous work, because of the long dry season which can, (as it is now) last weeks or months longer than it is “supposed” to. In addition to being unable to plant their own crops of beans, peppers, or tomatoes, due to a lack of rain and therefore a lack of soil moisture – Geraldo es jodido because he is not getting any contract work for plowing or disking with his tractor. It`s too dry – no one is ready to plant. So now, sadly, they are asking me for 150 dollars, simply to pay a bank loan that has come due.

On the front gate of our dusty little compound here Geraldo had recently posted a sad looking cardboard sign written with a ball point pen, “Arriendo Departamento” - apartment for rent. This was in anticipation of my moving off to Ibarra, of course. To go for a month or two without the rental income would be disastrous for them. We sat on the stairs, Geraldo staring down at his shoes and me staring at the sign. I said, “Geraldo, go ahead and take that sign down from there. I like it here, and I`d like to stay a while longer, if that`s OK with you. I`ll pay you what I still owe for September, and as well for 3 months rent in advance. That should put us right at 150 dollars. Esta bien?” He smiled and said, “we know you, and we`re glad you will stay. Esta bien.” We shook hands, both getting what we needed, for the time being. Now, if it would only start to rain a little . . .


It has been horribly dry here in the Valle de Chota. In the afternoons the sun is blistering and hot winds roar down the canyon, blowing trash all over, carrying laundry off the line, and pushing dirt through open windows and the half inch gap at the bottom of a doorway. To scratch the neck of a dog creates an explosion of dust which rises in the air, sparkling in the sunshine. The nights, however, bring cool air and clear skies filled with stars. From my roof top tonight I stare out to the town of Mira far off in the distance, and closer, due north, the village of Tambo. Up in the mountains, 3 or 4 large fires rage, burning what little scrub clings to the steep and dry hillsides. Some of the fires are set by bored kids, or someone angry at a neighbor or former friend. Others are set by farmers and landowners in an attempt to clear out a few more hectares of pasture to replace that which they have already farmed out.

I was listening to Radio Mira (90.5 FM), the only station I get, a little earlier today, and the DJ was interviewing someone about the fires. The guest may have been from the government, or perhaps some foundation or another, I wasn`t sure. He was quite emotional and chastised those who were burning “la natureleza” --- “my question is why? Why do you do this? Why do you burn our trees and our mountains?” He went on in this manner for a few moments until the DJ stopped him and said “this is too depressing, let`s listen to some music”, and that was that.

Ah, Ecuador.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Puno, Lago Titicaca, and environs

We climbed out of the sacred valley and into the altiplano, a cold and blustery region ringed by snowcapped peaks. Here and there were fields of wheat and barley, and occasionally a lone shepherdess tending to her sheep. Huts of grass and mud dotted the landscape, and settlements of more than a few houses were few and far between. It seemed as though, except for the train, that we had backed three or four hundred years into the past. We tracked along the beautiful Rio Urubamba for some distance, and the amount and variety of birdlife was truly amazing – egrets, coasting above the river; hawks, sitting on fence posts or high up on the single strand utility poles; and standing in what looked to be a flooded field was a spectacular grouping of flamingos, pink flamingos; just to mention the few I am able to identify.

In the waning moments of daylight we made a lengthy stop in Juliaca, which put everyone in a foul mood as we waited, and waited, for the trip to continue. An unfortunate aspect of bus travel in South America is that the drivers never (or only very rarely) inform the passengers of anything. So when the bus makes a stop, and the driver and his helper jump off and disappear, you have no idea whether they will be gone for 30 seconds to take a leak or 30 minutes to eat lunch and perhaps enjoy a quick conjugal visit with the wife. You dare not leave the bus yourself, in fear that it will take off without you; so if you are hungry you depend on the stream of vendors who offer everything from soup to nuts; and if you have to hit the head you either take your chances or ask another passenger to please, please, make them wait until you get back.

After what seemed like hours but really wasn`t we got out of Juliaca and continued on our way to Puno. Night had fallen, and I was sorry that I could not see the landscape as we approached Lago Titicaca. We had met a young couple from Ireland on the bus, they were on their way to Bolivia. We also met a man who had boarded at Juliaca, and as soon as he saw us he handed us business cards pertaining to lodging in Puno. Our Irish friends, having been to Puno once before earlier in their trip, mentioned that they had other lodging in mind, and had suggested that it would be a good choice for Tia and I as well. Nevertheless, our would-be benefactor was quite pushy, and at the bus station in Puno the four of us dutifully followed him to the “luxury hotel, but very inexpensive” that he so highly recommended. The moment we walked in the door our minds were made up that we would not be sleeping here tonight, but once again, wanting to avoid any unpleasantries, we climbed the three or four flights of stairs “to have a look at the room”. We looked, and we left, and went on with our friends to their hostal of choice, which turned out to be just fine.

After settling in, we two went out to continue our never ending search for good stuff to eat. Alas, it was late, and on this particular night we did not have much luck, so we settled for some rather pedestrian fare at a local dive, where the waiter tried to interest us in a boat tour the following day of the floating islands on the lake. As a matter of fact, it seemed that almost everyone in Puno was trying to interest someone in a boat tour of “las islas en el lago”.
Tia and I, when traveling, seem to share a common fear, or dread, or dislike of doing what everyone else is doing. Therefore we had mixed feelings about going out to see the famous manmade islands of Los Uros – islands built of tortora reeds, which are constantly replenished as the bottom layers of reed rot away into the lake. On top of these islands are houses, also built of tortora, and in these houses live the remnants of the Uros, who once subsisted mainly on fishing but who now depend on tourism for their daily bread. Many boats do go out to the islands every morning; we had heard that once on the islands there was tremendous pressure to buy souvenirs or to pose for photos with the locals which of course had a charge attached as well. We did go down to the docks early our first morning to see about a trip out on the lake; but the longer we stood there and watched the groups of people boarding boats, not to mention listening to the musicians playing Beatles and Abba covers on their guitars and flutes, the less interested we became, and ultimately we chickened out. Meanwhile, I had hatched an alternative plan, and off we went in search of a collectivo to take us to Chucuito.


Lago Titicaca sits at right about 12,500 feet in altitude and many sources refer to it as the world`s highest navigable lake. It straddles the frontier between Peru and Bolivia, and far off in the distance across the lake are monstrous snowcapped mountains, which I assumed were part of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia. At 3,500 sq. miles the lake is quite large by South American standards, yet it is only a fraction of the size of Lakes Superior or Michigan, in North America. Legend has it that in or near the year 1200 the founders of the Incan Empire, Manco Capac and his sister/wife Mama Occlo emerged one morning from Lago Titicaca, made their way to what is now Cusco, and began creating what was, at the time, one of the largest and most well developed civilizations in the world. At its height, around 1500, the Incan Empire ruled over more than 14 million people, most subjugated by the awesome size and might of the Incan armies. However, what comes around sometimes goes around, and by the late 1500`s the Spanish conquistadores had laid waste to much of the continent and brought an end to the Incan civilization.

I heard someone say once that you could put a shovel in the ground in just about any spot you chose in Peru and you would dig up some history – a bone, a piece of an artifact, maybe even evidence of an entire civilization. There was, indeed, a patina of antiquity nearly everywhere we went, and Chucuito was no exception. Although modernity was all around us - cars and busses whizzing by on the two-lane blacktop, the occasional aircraft high above us in the sky, an internet café here and there, or a boombox blaring from a windowsill - it took only a moment in Chucuito to block such things from view. With little effort except to walk 10 paces around a corner, or to cross the road onto a path winding through smallholdings of corn or potatoes; one can enter another world. A slower world, where time means little, and a friendlier world, where to not greet and then chat with any stranger you come upon would be thought an insult.

In Chucuito we did nothing but wander around aimlessly, and it was wonderful. Adjacent to the lake, it is situated beautifully and the air is crisp and clean. We did turn a corner or two, and as well we crossed the road to the lakeside and made small talk with those whom we came across. One farmer took us down to where he was harvesting tortora reeds along the edge of the lake, the ground was spongy and wet, so we took our shoes off which pleased our friend who was barefoot himself. Of course his feet appeared to be built of leather, whereas ours were white and doughy-soft. Later, as we returned to town, he showed us a bubbling, carbonated stream, which sprung from a little rise along the path just a few yards away.
Back in “downtown” Chucuito we walked by the very old Catholic Church, the graveyard, and the long ago closed down nunnery. The place was huge, and I was hard pressed to tell what keeps it standing. Once again, off in the distance, we could clearly see the absolutely astonishing snow capped range across the lake in Bolivia. We found a great spot to have lunch, and a few pisco sours, and I was amused by some paintings hung on the wall which seemed to be landscapes done in a kind of “folk-art” style. The paintings were charming on their own, if not a little hum-drum, so someone had carefully cut out photos of pretty young girls, scantily clad, of course, and pasted them into the scene in an apparent attempt to liven things up. I thought they had made a pretty good job of it.
We enjoyed Chucuitos for several more hours, and the more we wandered around doing nothing the more we liked it, and it was added to the list of places where we would like to spend a lot more time, along with Pisac and Ollantaytambo. Back out on the highway, we piled into a crowded collectivo headed to Puno, where we arrived with enough daylight left to enjoy some of its lively streets and tranquil parks.
(2 brief notes) 1. Collectivos are very small buses, better to call them vans, with little headroom and nominal seating for 12 or so – although at times we counted as many as 22, including ourselves, as passengers huddled together or contorted themselves in the most unlikely ways. It`s a great way to make new friends. 2. Peru is not too far south of the Equator, therefore the days, all 365 of them, are more or less comprised of 12 hours light and 12 hours dark. This varies given the North/South length of the country, but works as an average.

I had warnings from others that Puno tended toward grey and cold, but we were quite lucky during our 3 day stay – sunny days, not too warm; and pleasantly chilly nights, just about perfect from my point of view. We had enjoyed our day in Chucuito so much that we stopped there again the next day for a mid afternoon lunch, following a morning trip further up the road towards Bolivia to the highland town of Juli, which was rumored to have a small port. We had hoped to get out on the lake from here, to avoid the crowds back in Puno. Our collectivo dropped us on the edge of town, and we trudged up the long cobbled street towards the town center. It was market day, but not for tourists. To list all the goods available at this outdoor market, which spilled out over several streets is beyond my ability – suffice it to say, if anyone ever needed ANYTHING, it was most likely here. And in quantities sufficient for a large army. A sampler – muy corta, y en español – zapatos, herramientas, focos, muebles, crema dental, cepillos (para el pelo, y de dientes), gallinas, ropa, mas zapatos, pañales, quintales de arroz, quintales de frejoles, radios, antenas de los televisors, papel higienico, ollas, platos, y todos las cosas para la cocina, y mas, mas, mucho mas. (A sampler, very short, and in Spanish – shoes, tools, lightbulbs, furniture, toothpaste, hairbrushes and toothbrushes, chickens, clothing, more shoes, diapers, 100lb bags of rice, and beans, radios, television antennas, toilet paper, pots, plates, and everything for the kitchen, and more, more, so much more. We didn`t even bother taking any photos, there was just no way to capture the sheer volume of goods – once again, a common theme in Latin America. The marketplace here is alive and well.

We made our way through the market and walked quite a distance through town before stumbling upon “the port”, which consisted of a concrete pier, recently constructed, with attractive fixtures, nice wrought iron railings, and a completely empty building which looked to be intended for a restaurant and ticket sales, ostensibly for boat rides on Lago Titicaca. One problem – not only were there no employees anywhere to be found, neither were there any boats, save 2 small wooden rowboats anchored in the shallows. A few people were milling about, and we tried to get the story . . . but either we were misunderstood or no one knew. We could only guess that once upon a time, not so long ago, the municipality had had a great idea to develop some tourist activities to boost the local economy, and had committed funds to the new “port”. It was probably opened with great fanfare, a big parade, lots of music, dancing and drunkenness; but likely without promotion or publicity of any kind. So, after a few weeks or months passed with few (if any) visitors, the whole scheme was probably deemed a stupid idea and abandoned. Just a theory, but I`d bet at least parts of it are accurate. So, no boat rides for us out on the big lake, but we hung around the pier a short while and soon trudged back up the hill to town, where we bought a couple of slices of a delicious orange cake from a street vendor and sat and watched the world go by for a while. We got a lot of long looks, and gathered that these folks don`t have too many gringos coming to town and eating orange cake out on the main square.

Later in the day, back in Chucuito, we reprised our earlier visit and had an incredible lunch of lake trout with all the trimmings. Unfortunately, Tia was not feeling well, so she did not enjoy her lunch quite as much as I did. Our host at the restaurant prepared a little concoction for her, based on a liquer made from anis, and shortly thereafter she began to feel better. Nevertheless, we decided to call it a day and went back to Puno.
Tia was fully recovered the following morning, so we set out to see some sights in Puno. As usual we did a lot of aimless wandering, but we also made a point of visiting the very small Dreyer Museum just off the main square, which houses quite a nice collection of pre Incan (Aymara, Uros, Tiahuanaca) relics as well as several mummies. I am not a huge fan of museums myself probably due to a short attention span, but this one was quite compact, well laid out, and informative. Not to mention the friendly staff, of course. Soon enough we were back out on the street, where we belonged, and began our wandering anew. After a while we came across a large building where there was an awful lot of activity – lots of food being sold, people coming and going, and lots of noise and cheers coming from inside. We took an immediate interest and asked what was going on, and were told that there was a competition being held. We bought a couple of tickets, and indeed it was a competition, a cheerleading competition! The stands were packed, the teams of girls were in a frenzy, and groups of boys huddled together, assessing the attributes of the competitors. It was mayhem, or at least bedlam, in the coliseum. As in so many aspects of South America, there was a sense of anarchy – not political anarchy, and certainly not violent – but rather what appears to be a complete and utter disorder, to the point that one (the “one” being me, along with my controlled and orderly western point of view) wonders what is holding this all together and at what moment will it spin totally out of control. Yet, it almost always holds together, and if you can let yourself, it is a wonderful feeling to let yourself go and get caught up in the exuberance of it all.

We watched several groups of competitors come out to the floor and do their thing, which sometimes appeared to be nothing more than running in place, while other teams were finely tuned and performed relatively tight routines. I guessed that the competition included both private and public schools, and it was likely that the wealthier private school teams were the more disciplined. We did not stick around long enough to see the winners determined ( it could have gone on another 5 or 6 hours) – but instead we left el coliseo and enjoyed Puno for a few more hours, before waving goodbye later that afternoon as we boarded another bus, bound this time for Peru`s “intellectual capital”, the city of Arequipa.

I have uploaded some photos at

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Saddest Pleasure

This entry heading is borrowed from the title of one of Moritz Thomsen`s books, he in turn had borrowed it from Paul Theroux, the famous travel writer and novelist who, in the novel “Picture Palace” has one of his protagonists state “travel is the saddest of the pleasures”. Naturalist Peter Matthiessen, in the introduction to his book “The Cloud Forest” captures the sentiment to a degree when he writes “. . . I traveled through South America alone, but the solitude was broken . . . by the kindness and hospitality of many people” And of course there lies one of the major pleasures of traveling alone – the opportunity to meet and talk with a stranger, for 5 minutes while waiting for a bus, for an hour sharing a table at dinner, or for a night or even longer if fate should so determine. The sadness comes in the leaving; and travelers are forever leaving, always with a giddness and a foreboding that makes the day of departure one of extreme emotions, emotions that usually even out in favor of the road after the first few hours back on it.

I traveled quite a bit after my Peace Corps service ended in April 2009, much of that time I was not alone but rather lucky enough to be alongside my middle child, my daughter Tatiana. Tia, who was 23 at the time, has a bit of the wanderlust in her own soul, and she had recently been traveling alone for several months in Brazil and Chile. In Brazil she parked for a month in Rio de Janeiro and worked with children in the favelas, and as well began her learning of Portuguese. Even at her tender age, Tia is a veteran of South and Central America, having lived one year in Costa Rica and another in Chile. Her Spanish is excellent, much better than mine, in fact, and she is a great traveling companion. We were to meet April 21 in Cuzco, Peru. I would be coming south from Ecuador, she in turn would be traveling north from Santiago de Chile. For me, or for any father, I should think, it was a wonderful opportunity.

I wrapped up my Peace Corps paperwork in Quito on Monday morning, the 20th of April, and by noon I was a free agent. At 2PM I was on a LanEcuador jet for the short flight to Guayaquil, and later that same evening I flew into Lima, Peru. I had a 05:30 flight the next morning to Cusco, so it seemed to make sense to simply stay overnight in the Lima airport. Some 30-40 people had the same idea, and many were slumped over chairs or tables, others snug in sleeping bags in busy hallways or tucked away in corners. Couples traded shifts, one sleeping while the other kept an eye on the luggage. I spent several hours wandering around the airport, which was very active, and greatly enjoyed one of my favorite activities, people watching. Later I dozed off for a short time while sitting in a chair and later still I found a cozy spot to stretch out in and caught a few good hours of sleep. I was surprised to see that the airport was a beehive all through the night. Flights arriving and departing in the wee hours, restaurants (among them - Starbucks , Papa John`s and Dunkin Donuts) and internet cafes open all through the night, people strolling, talking, eating and drinking , creating an effect that was very much one of a small town with a very transient population.


Lima, the capital of Peru, is a huge city of 14 or 15 million people (more than the total population of Ecuador) located very near the Pacific Coast. Nearly 300 miles southeast as the crow flies Cusco lies nestled in the Andes at about 11,000 feet. Traveling from sea level to the high Andes by bus is a torturous affair of steep switchbacks and deep valleys, and the trip from Lima to Cusco can take anywhere between 22 to 30 hours. Meanwhile, flights are of a very short duration, usually just over an hour. Hence I arrived in Cusco very early, following a lovely hour of flying over snowcapped mountains, cobalt blue lakes and hidden villages. It was a beautiful morning and I had nothing in particular to do, so I decided to walk the several miles from the airport into the center city. The outskirts of Cusco are much like any South American city – bustling, litter filled streets; air grimy with diesel fumes, foul odors of rotting garbage and animal waste, intermingled with the savory smells of roasting meat and baking bread. The air is filled with sound, children singing on their way to school, the insistent honking of traffic, the barking of dogs, and of course the omnipresent blaring of radios and loudspeakers. It is all at once crazy, ridiculous, and wonderful.

I walked for about an hour before realizing that I really had no idea where I was going, so I flagged down a “taxi” which seemed to be operating on only one or two of its 4 cylinders, which was probably a good thing, for by the grating sound of metal on metal each time the driver applied the brakes I don`t think we could have stopped if operating at full power. 20 minutes later we limped into the center of Cusco, and I paid the fare of 3 soles, slightly less than one dollar.

Somehow, that broken down taxi had taken me out of one world, and into another.

Old town Cusco, with its vernacular Spanish architecture built atop Incan ruins, was crisp and clean. There were more Europeans and Americans in the Plaza de Armas and on the streets than Peruvians. There was no blaring music, only a few honking horns, and most of the hustle and bustle focused on the tour busses taking on passengers. I bought a cup of very strong and very sweet coffee along with an empanada from a street vendor and sat on the stairs of the Cathedral to watch. As the minutes passed I noticed more and more the locals moving in and out of the shadows and among the throngs of gringos. Offering tours, jewelry, watches, women and drugs, (you want a pretty girl, meester?; hey jefe, smoke reefer?) they moved quickly and avoided the groups of police chatting here and there amongst themselves. As the morning wore on, there were less gringos, most having departed with their tour groups or else on their way to Macchu Picchu. By mid-morning the majority of people in the square were locals; smartly dressed businessmen or government officials on their way from one office to another, groups of mothers breastfeeding their children, the occasional beggar, and colorfully dressed Indians walking purposefully to who knows where. Besides myself, there were only a handful of extranjeros left on the square and it was almost impossible to believe that just a bit earlier there had been so many. I reluctantly got up and began looking for the nearby Hostal Suecia, where I was to meet Tia in a few hours.

The hostal was easy to find; finding Tia, however, was somewhat more difficult. She was traveling by bus, a horrible 30 hour trip through the desert of North Chile and then the grueling mountains of Peru. She had reckoned her bus would be in Cusco by noon or 1PM. We had no means of contact, so I spent the afternoon wandering around town, and I made sure to pass by the Hostal Suecia II, to ask them if my daughter was there. She was not, of course, and they said that they would point her in the right direction if she happened to show up. Around 6 that evening I still had no word, so I called my ex-wife in the states to see if she had heard from Tia - they were normally in fairly regular contact with one another. She had not heard anything, so I decided just to be patient and head back to the hostal to read a little and wait for her. As I walked in the door of the hostal the elderly dueña greeted me with a big smile and said “señor! Su hija – ella esta aqui!” She had made it – and I found her in our room, sleeping soundly. A little later we went for a long walk through town, it was a beautiful night, chilly and clear, and we found many back alleys and quiet streets to explore while looking for just the right place to have a reunion dinner.

Since we were leaving for Ollantaytambo later the next day, we spent just the one night in Cusco, and took in very few of the customary sights. We did wander through some of the barrios just outside the city center, and there we had our first encounters with the incredible and delicious array of street foods to be found in Peru. Especially good were the rocoto rellenos and the papa rellenos (stuffed peppers, stuffed potatoes). I was surprised to find that the cost of eating in Peru was even cheaper than in Ecuador, and we frequently found lunch or dinner for under one dollar during our 3 week stay. For countries that are thought to be agriculturally backward both Peru and Ecuador have astonishing amounts of food, raw or ready to eat, available almost 24 hours a day, every day. It is usually cheap to very cheap, and it is astonishing to me that there may be a segment of these populations that is going hungry. During my 2 years in Ecuador I did see bad nutrition, and a lot of it, but I never saw anyone who looked to be starving. Likewise for the short 3 weeks we were in Peru. In both countries, however, the soda and candy consumption is truly appalling.
We found the provincial bus terminal and later that afternoon were on our way to Ollantaytambo. There is a large well preserved Incan fortress here, one of the few places where Pizarro and his conquistadores were forced to retreat (but not for long) during the dismantling of the Incan Empire. The town is located in a beautiful valley formed by the Rio Patacancha, and high in the surrounding mountains are the remnants of Incan granaries, lookouts, and storehouses. The town itself is laid out in a very orderly grid pattern, said to be almost identical to the original Incan design. It`s a charming little town, and since we were only staying one night before catching the train to Aguas Calientes we looked forward to our return several days later. That night we wandered off onto some side streets and found a little hole in the wall restaurant where we had a decent meal and a couple of beers, but mostly were entertained by the small monkey and furry little dog who seemed to rule the premises. We hung around the small village square for a little while, then returned to our hostal. The next day we had a train to catch.

There are several ways for travelers to get to Macchu Picchu. Tia and I had considered our options via frequent e-mails and occasional phone calls and ultimately we decided on the train from Ollantaytambo. Neither one of us wanted to expend the time (4 days) nor the effort (30 miles, gaining over one mile in altitude during the first two days) to hike the Inca Trail, although of course it is known to be one of the premier hiking experiences in the world. It was not so many years ago that the trail could be hiked catch as catch can, but due to the incredible numbers of users, in 2001 the Peruvian authorities enacted new policies which restrict the daily number of hikers and require the use of certified guides, which has in turn skyrocketed the price of hiking the trail. Nonetheless, many friends from Peace Corps made the hike, and there was no end to the praise they bestowed upon the experience. I have heard of other trails that will reach Macchu Pichhu, free from fees and regulations, and surely they exist among the myriad footpaths of the region, but these made no difference to us. We knew we would get in plenty of hiking elsewhere during our trip and besides we wanted to ride on the train.
Many who choose to go to Macchu Picchu by train leave from Cusco, and often return the same day. Somewhat fewer visitors will do as we did and leave from Ollantaytambo. We had decided to spend 2 nights in Aguas Calientes, also known as Macchu Picchu Village. The advantage with this plan was clear – we would be able to get to the ruins very early on the day of our visit, and stay very late, way beyond the time most others have left to catch the train back to Cusco. The disadvantage of this plan became clear soon enough – we had to spend two nights in Aguas Calientes.

If you are hiking the Inca Trail, you enter Macchu Picchu through Intipunku, the Sun Gate, a just reward for 4 days of arduous hiking. If you come in by train, you enter through Aguas Calientes, a true nightmare if you happen to be a city planner or are otherwise concerned about safety in the form of fire codes or natural disaster planning. From one end to the other this conglomeration was filled with hastily built hotels, restaurants and gift shops to accommodate the crush of tourists coming to Macchu Picchu. Even though it appeared that every square inch of the place had been occupied, the construction continued unabated, upward. Older buildings that surely once upon a time had spectacular views of the surrounding mountains now sat in the shadows of new construction. Hawkers hounded us (and all the rest of the tourists) every step we took – “pizza meester!! 22 soles!!”; “pizza meester, y dos pisco sours, 20 soles!!” If you were to hang around long enough, these guys would offer the sun the moon and the stars just to get you inside their particular establishment.

Nevertheless . . . the trip up from Ollanta had been lovely; we hugged the banks of the Rio Urubamba and passed through small villages, ancient agricultural terraces and the occasional ruin before pulling into Aguas Calientes. The train was almost entirely comprised of gringos, and as they all disembarked and streamed off in one direction Tia and I looked at each other and immediately set off in the opposite direction. We followed some arrows painted on sides of buildings that pointed uphill and said “emergencia” and we happened upon a small hostal that had beds available and looked perfectly acceptable. Thinking that the arrows indicated escape routes in case of fire burning the entire town to the ground I asked the proprietor of the hostal to explain. It turns out that frequently enough there are flash floods on the Rio Urubamba, and the arrows indicate the way to safety. We found them all over town as we later wandered around. We ate an early dinner (pizza, and 4 pisco sours, 20 soles) and we turned in early as well. In the morning we would take the first bus at 05:30 to Macchu Picchu and we planned to spend all day there.

Now, I must admit that I was fully prepared to be totally underwhelmed by the ruins at Macchu Picchu, having seen hundreds of photos and having read various accounts by other visitors. I was treating this journey as one of those obligatory things that “one must do” while in South America. So, imagine my surprise, as we climbed past the entry gates and entered the ruins through the agricultural sector, when my breath was taken away –immediately- by what lay before us. The effect was heightened by the early morning fog and mist, which lifted from time to time to reveal both the stunning 360 degree landscape as well as the ruins themselves. I could try here to describe it, but I would rather turn again to Peter Matthiessen, again from “The Cloud Forest”.

----- “The ruins at Macchu Picchu have been described in detail, ineffectually, by any number of writers, including myself . . . one must see the place to comprehend it, and that is that. Like all the rest, I find it a formidable spectacle, unforgettable . . .” ----

We did spend all day there, and we must have walked at least 25 kilometers as we climbed up and down paths and wandered to the Sun Gate, the Incan Bridge and anywhere else we chose to go. It was wonderful to have such easy and free access to any nook and cranny we thought looked interesting. In the morning there were tourists everywhere, yet the place is large enough to accommodate them all, and it was easy enough to stay away from the large groups and their guides. By 2PM the ruins were all but empty, and the few of us who lingered enjoyed several hours of peace and solitude until well into late afternoon when the closing signals sounded. It is interesting to me that no none truly knows the story of Macchu Picchu – why was it built, who lived there and when, and for how long, and why was it abandoned? There are many theories, of course, but it`s great to know there are still mysteries in this world.

As we headed down the hill in the fading light to the last bus of the day we wished we had our sleeping bags so we could stay overnight (prohibited of course) and do it all over again tomorrow. But maybe that would have been gilding the lily, too much of a good thing. We agreed that it had been a wonderful, and likely once in a lifetime, experience, and left it at that.

There was one other mystery, very minor, at Macchu Picchu that we will never know the true answer to. Around mid-morning, while we were alone up in the ruins, a small dog had wandered up to us, literally coming out of nowhere. Someone (?) had painted his face, circles around the eyes, etc. He was quite unlike other South American dogs I have met, in that he was neither bravo nor timid – just a nice little dog with a normal amount of curiosity and friendliness. We gushed over him, played a little, and tried to figure out where he had come from or if he belonged to someone. No luck, there was no one else around. We eventually left him, perched on a rock high above the Rio Urubamba. Later that same night, miles and miles away back in Aguas Calientes, there he was again, on the square, and without a care in the world. It would be appropriate to the place to believe that he was an ancient spirit, wandering through his territory; and I suppose, just this once, that I can go with that.

We returned by train the next morning to Ollantaytambo. We stayed for a few hours and once again we were charmed, but we wanted to see more of the sacred valley and decided to move on. We jumped on a bus bound to the town of Urubamba, and then had a moto-taxi take us from the bus station into town. Neither one of us was particularly smitten with Urubamba, not to mention that every hostal we looked into was giving us the “full gringo” which was our term for ridiculously inflated prices. We meandered through town for an hour or two, and on our way back to the bus station we came across a remarkable market – mounds and mounds of all kinds of fruits and vegetables, dozens of vendors, and several food stalls with some pretty great looking chow – the only thing missing were clients. There was almost no one shopping here, despite the activity out on the streets. Most markets I have seen are packed, jam packed, all day long. I do not have any idea why this one was so empty. I thought to ask, but the vendors appeared to be so bored and forlorn that I did not want to say anything that would cause them to think even more about their mala suerte. We bought a few snacks to take on the bus with us, including some very delicious pastries, and we headed off to Pisac.

Pisac turned out to be just what we were looking for, and we stayed 2 nights there. A small town, not quite “quaint”, but real close. The road in from Urubamba had provided spectacular scenery, lush agriculture, and for Tia a great opportunity to nap. As she slept I remembered to years back when my kids were younger and how, when we would travel, I would always nag them to “look!! Look out the window!! Look at that field of (corn; melons; cows; sheep; etc.)!! Look at the (moon; setting sun; stone house; lake; etc.), isn`t it pretty?” and on and on and on. This time I resisted the overwhelming temptation to wake her – it was not the first spectacular scenery we had seen in Peru and it would not be the last.
In Pisac we did almost nothing for 2 days, and it was great. We had found a great little hostal up the hill from the town plaza, just enough away from the hub-bub of the market that seems to go on day after day after day. Jewelry, ceramics, clothing, shoes, more jewelry – it boggles my mind as to where all this stuff comes from. We asked some vendors about it and we were told that ALL of it is made “by hand” by “local artisans”. With a little probing we learned that what “by hand” meant was a little like opening a frozen pie crust and a couple of tins of cherry pie filling, baking it, and then saying you had made it “from scratch”. “Local artisans” seemed to include every man, woman and child who spent every spare moment working piecemeal putting together jewelry, stringing beads, spinning yarn or knitting mittens. I am still skeptical, however. The sheer volume of these goods to be found in Peru, in Ecuador, and elsewhere leads me to think that there must be factories somewhere pumping this stuff off assembly lines by the tens of thousands. I hoped I was wrong as I bought knick-knacks and jewelry to take back to friends and relations in the states.

Pisac was surrounded by colorful fields of amaranth and quinoa, small seeded grains known for their high nutritional value. I wandered through some of the fields trying to attract the attention of a farmer who might be able to tell me how it was marketed and processed, but succeeded only in gathering a string of beautiful and dirty children who wanted me to speak English – “como se dice `Klever` (a boy`s name) en ingles?” “como se dice bicicleta en ingles?” or they would shout out “whan! du! dhree! forr! – khat! dohg! hiello!” I encouraged them to keep practicing, taught them how to say “see you later” and walked back to town.
Much of Pisac was closed off to car and truck traffic, which kept the air free of diesel fumes and made walking a pleasure. Although there was no “spectacular” architecture to be found, here and there were casitas carefully built of mud and straw, embellished with embossed designs of agricultural implements, human hands or faces, and astrological symbols. The streets were mostly built of stone pavers, carefully laid out in attractive designs and many had narrow channels of stone running through the centerline which carried water in order to clean the streets. At the head of some of the channels were elaborate representations of serpents or jaguars opening their mouths to receive the water. As in Ollantaytambo, we were charmed by Pisac, and it is one of the many towns we encountered throughout Peru that we could easily imagine spending many weeks, months, or years in.
Alas, this time around we had only a few days, and all too soon we were on our way back to Cusco, or more specifically the main bus terminal, where we were hoping to catch a bus to Puno, 7 hours away on the edge of Lago Titicaca. Normally, it can be somewhat overwhelming to enter an unknown bus station in any country, especially if the moment you enter you are surrounded by dozens of aggressive men shouting out possible destinations – “Lima, Lima, Lima, venga señor!” or, Arequipa!! Venga, mi reina (addressed to Tia), venga, amor!” On this particular day, though, we could not have been luckier, for as we were walking through the gates from the street, a big beautiful bus was just leaving, and we got a shout of “Puno!! Puno!!” We quickly negotiated a price and hopped on. After more than two years of overcrowded and uncomfortable busses in Ecuador I thought I had died and gone to heaven; we were in one of Peru`s famous “bus camas”, a mammoth double decker with normal bus seating upstairs and spacious “VIP” type reclining seats in the lower section, and two of those beauties were ours. We got comfortable and settled in for the relatively short trip to Puno, reluctantly leaving the sacred valley of the Incans and headed for the altiplano.

I have posted a very disorganized bunch of photos of this part of our trip at this site:

(Next entry – more of Peru)